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Series: Hill Street Blues

"Hey, Let's be careful out there!"
Sgt. Phil Esterhaus in The Teaser of every episode

Hill Street Blues was a serial police drama that was first aired on NBC and ran for 146 episodes from 1981-1987. Chronicling the lives of the staff of a police precinct in an unnamed American city, the show received high critical acclaim and its innovations proved highly influential on serious dramatic television series produced in North America. Its debut season was honored with eight Emmy awards, a debut season record surpassed only by The West Wing, and the show received a total of 98 Emmy Award nominations during its run.

The series was unique at the time for being the first to bring together several ideas in TV drama:
  • Each episode featured a number of intertwined storylines, some of which were resolved within the episode, while others carried over multiple episodes during a season.
  • The conflict between work life and home life is explored, as well as the conflict between doing what is right and doing what works.
  • Many camera techniques, such as tight closeups, use of offscreen dialogue, rapid cuts between stories, and use of handheld cameras rather than floor cameras, gave the series a "documentary" feel.
  • Almost every episode started with "roll-call", and many episodes were written to take place over the course of a single day (a technique later used by such shows as L.A. Law and ER).

The whole series can now be viewed on YouTube here. Currently (2014) the complete series is also available as a region 1 DVD box.

This series contains examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Detective LaRue and Captain Furillo are both in recovery. Furillo's struggles and subsequent lapse are the focus of one arc.
  • Amoral Attorney: The police officers view Joyce Davenport as this, since she sometimes seems determined to defend people who "everybody" knows are guilty, and sometimes invokes technicalities to get them off. However, the show makes clear that she is anything but amoral; it's her strong sense of morality that drives her to defend poor people against the system, even though this may have the unfortunate result of guilty people going free. This conflict gives her adversary at work/lover in private Frank Furillo some headaches.
    Sometimes her liberal ideology drives her to deride the police as the neighborhood's "Nazi occupation force," but over the course of the series she seems to come to appreciate that the police are the good guys.

  • Buddy Cops: Though not a Buddy Cop Show in the traditional sense, it featured several more or less permanent pairings: Hill & Renko, Bates & Coffey, La Rue & Washington, Flaherty & Russo.
  • Bungled Suicide: Howard Hunter, though it was more of a sabotaged suicide; La Rue apparently figured out what he was planning and replaced his service revolver's ammunition with blanks.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer
    • Belker, with his somewhat unconventional methods of anger management.
    • Lt. Hunter. His rather academic and philosophical way of approaching life, coupled with a survivalist right-wing ideology, makes him seem a bit awkward and disconnected from reality at times.
    • Judge Wachtel, who appears in the courtroom wearing a dress, on the advice of his psychiatrist. He's otherwise presented as a Wholesome Crossdresser, but crossdressing in the courtroom caused a few raised eyebrows.
  • Butt Monkey
    • Henry Goldblume whose desires to help and always see the good in people often get him into trouble.
    • Howard Hunter, who is socially awkward and often seems a bit out of touch with reality.
    • Fay Furillo, who seems to be a real accident magnet. Basically everything that can go wrong in her life does.
  • But We Used a Condom: The failure led to Renko's "shotgun" wedding.
    Renko: But we took every conceivable precaution!
    Hill: Conceiveable is right.
  • Catch Phrase:
    Esterhaus: "Let's be careful out there."
    Jablonski: "Let's do it to them before they do it to us."
    Hunter: "Judas Priest, Frank!"
    • Belker's colorful terms for suspects: "dirtbag" and "hairball."
    • Davenport's nickname for Furillo: "Pizza-Man."
  • Character Death: many, many characters, including Officer Joe Coffey, Officer Virgil Brooks, Gina Srignoli, Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, Detective Harry Garibaldi, and saddest of all, Captain Freedom
  • Christmas Episode: "Santaclaustrophobia"
  • City with No Name: The identity of the city where the show takes place is never revealed. Some exterior shots, including the outside of the police station, were filmed in Chicago.
  • Cop Show: The show mostly averted the Cop Show stereotypes in that it tried to depict police work in a realistic, gritty way, and not as especially glamorous or heroic.
  • Crapsack World: The cops of the Hill Street precinct fight the good fight, but it's at best a holding action against the insurmountable problems of the inner city and the corrupt politics of Chicago whatever nondescript city it was set in.
  • Dirty Business: Many instances, including the memorable "Trial By Fury"
  • Dirty Cop: Det. Benedetto in season 3.
  • Don't Tell Mama: When the minor crook that Belker is constantly booking dies in an unrelated gunfight, he finally tells Belker his real name so Belker can at least let his mother know about his death. When Belker talks to her, he tells her about what a fine citizen her son had been.
  • Donut Mess with a Cop: Poor Renko...
  • Dramedy: Though it isn't quite a dramedy in the sense described by its trope definition (the show was billed as drama, not as comedy, and drama tended to take precedence over comedy) many of the subplots and events are comedic, sometimes bordering on slapstick. The stark reality of a poor, high-crime neighbourhood is often viewed as a dark, absurd comedy.
  • Fanservice: The numerous bedroom scenes with Frank and Joyce should qualify. Nothing explicit is shown, though, and in general the show is much lighter on nudity than its successor, NYPDBlue.
  • Final Speech: Poor Captain Freedom...
  • From the Ashes: Was followed by a short-lived Spin-Off called Beverly Hills Buntz which followed Det. Norman Buntz and Sid the Snitch as private investigators in Beverly Hills, California.
  • The Good, the Bad, and the Evil: In "The World According to Freedom," Furillo enlists the help of the street gangs to find the perpetrators of a gruesome night club murder.
  • Gang of Hats: Several of the gangs, since this trope was popular at the time.
  • Goofy Suit: Belker worked undercover wearing a chicken suit in two episodes. He even made an arrest wearing it.
  • Heroic Wannabe: Captain Freedom! (POW! ZAP!) When he walks down the street, buildings shake and bad guys wet their pants.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Hill and Renko.
  • I'm a Humanitarian:
    • Lieutenant Hunter and a friend are buried in a building collapse and are not found until several days later, the friend having died in the mean time. An autopsy reveals that the friend's body has human bite marks, which leads to Captain Furillo asking Hunter if he ate his friend. Hunter frankly admits to it, saying that he and his friend had made a pact that if they were ever in a desperate enough situation and one of them died, the survivor should use the deceased for sustenance. Furillo orders Hunter to never say a word about it and presumably proceeds to make sure word of it never gets out because having to deal with the frenzy over one of his officers being a cannibal is the last thing he needs to deal with.
    • A one-shot character who would eat things for money had once eaten part of his finger and now wouldn't do that.
  • Instrumental Theme Tune: Composed by Mike Post. It was released as a single and hit #10 on the Billboard chart in 1981.
  • Internal Affairs: In one episode, an IA officer is sent to work undercover in the Hill Street station. The cops uncover her identity and are severely annoyed.
  • Jitter Cam: Came into wide US use through this series.
  • Logo Joke: The MTM kitten sports a cop hat.
  • The Mad Hatter: Mick Belker.
  • The Missus and the Ex: Fay Furillo (Frank's ex) and Joyce Davenport (his current girlfriend) start out as rivals but learn to respect each others and become friends.
  • My Beloved Smother: Belker's mother, who keeps calling him at work, often at very inconvenient times.
  • Noble Bigot with a Badge: Det. Norman Buntz. Lt. Hunter has his moments as well.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: The setting was never explicitly named, though it resembles Chicago more than anything else, and Chicago stock footage was used extensively.
    • Bobby Hill takes the Amtrak day train to St. Louis; something easily done if you live in Chicago.
    • The names of some of police precincts (Hill Street, South Ferry, Jefferson Heights) were taken from neighborhoods in Buffalo, and Steven Bochco modeled the Hill Street precinct on Pittsburgh's troubled Hill District.
    • Philadelphia City Hall was seen in several episodes.
    • The marked police cars' graphics resemble those of Chicago, and rumor at the time was that the Chicago PD did not allow the producers to use "CHICAGO POLICE" logos and graphics after the experience of The Blues Brothers.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Furillo bends the rules to carry a psychologically disabled officer on the station roster, even though the man is no longer able to function, so the poor guy can get enough time in service to retire with full pension. He finds himself hauled in front of a grand jury investigating corruption in the department and grilled about it.
  • No Name Given: Recurring characters Rico the Junkie and "Buck Naked" the flasher
    • Buck Naked *is* the character's name according to the closing credits of the episodes he appears in
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Chief Fletcher P. Daniels, also arguably a Corrupt Bureaucrat with a touch of Magnificent Bastard
  • Once an Episode: The Cold Opening morning roll call.
  • Only Sane Man: Captain Francis Xavier (Frank) Furillo. At least it seems that way at times.
  • Out with a Bang: Sgt. Esterhaus, who dies of a massive heart attack while making love with girlfriend Grace Gardner. (The 58-year-old Michael Conrad, in contrast, died of cancer.)
  • The Place: Hill Street is the name of the precinct where the show takes place.
  • Police Procedural: One of the first TV shows to attempt to give a realistic picture of police work, rather than a highly idealized version.
  • Rabid Cop: Mick Belker, who even barked and growled at times.
  • The Reveal:
    • One of the last scenes in the pilot reveals that Furillo and Davenport are lovers.
    • After getting into difficulties because of his drinking, J.D. La Rue is ordered by Captain Furillo to join AA as a condition of keeping his job. He goes to his first AA meeting and sees recovering alcoholic Captain Furillo there.
  • Salt and Pepper: Hill and Renko. Also La Rue and Washington.
  • Secret Relationship: Captain Frank Furillo and Public Defender Joyce Davenport. In the pilot episode, she spends all day sparring with him. In one of the last scenes, she's seen in the bedroom, complaining to her paramour about how the police are Hill Street's "Nazi occupation force." Then comes The Reveal: her paramour is none other than Police Captain Furillo, the commander of Hill Street precinct! Over the course of the series, the relationship comes out into the open and they eventually marry.
  • Shared Universe: With NYPD Blue. The two shows shared a minor character named Buck Naked.
  • Something Blues: The show's title follows this common pattern, but is also an allusion to "blues" as in "uniformed police officers".
  • Story Arc: Hill Street Blues was the first U.S. drama series (other than a Soap Opera) to rely on this technique.
  • Straw Feminist: In-universe, Fay Furillo is obviously familiar with the trope and takes care to avert it: when she tells her ex-husband that she has joined a feminist group, she emphasises that she is not going to burn her bra. Frank is visibly relieved.
  • Stuffed into a Trashcan: The show's first TV Guide advert featured Jack Davis style sketches of the cast sitting on the lid of a trash can with the hands and feet of criminals sticking out here and there.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: When Michael Conrad died early in Season 4, his Sgt. Esterhaus was replaced with Robert Prosky's Sgt. Jablonski (who was even given a similar catchphrase to close out the briefing at the top of each episode).
  • SWAT Team: The Hill Street precinct has one of these, headed by Lt. Hunter. It is called the Emergency Action Team rather than the SWAT Team, though.
  • The Eighties: but in a poor part of town that is very far from the glitzy world of Miami Vice. Also, in the first few seasons it's the very early Eighties, and much of The Seventies remains.
  • Two Words: Obvious Trope: One detective to another, discussing why the latter should stay away from a flirty high-school student:
    Washington: Three words, JD: Statue. Tory. Rape.
  • Trash the Set: The station is hit by an offscreen fire in the Series Finale, but the building is only superficially damaged.
  • Vapor Wear
    • When an attractive female witness is being fitted with a Hidden Wire, and a detective suggests that the microphone should be attached to her bra - to which she replies that she will have to go out and buy one first.
    • Downplayed in the case of Joyce Davenport. When she is shown getting dressed she never puts on a bra. She always wears a camisole under her shirt, though, and usually a jacket on top, so it is never noticeable once she's dressed.
    • Discussed at roll call one summer morning, when Sgt. Esterhaus mentions that the female officers' request to dispense with supportive undergarments (due to the heat wave) has been denied.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: Jeffrey Tambor plays the cross-dressing lawyer, later judge, Wachtel, who was doing so on the advice of his psychiatrist "to resolve his feminine-identity issues". It worked.
  • You Look Familiar: Dennis Franz came in as a very memorable several-episode character in Season 3 (the corrupt Detective Sal Benedetto), then was cast as Buntz in Season 6.

Heres HumphreySeries of the 1980sThe Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Hec RamseyCrime and Punishment SeriesHomicide: Life on the Street
Death at a FuneralCreator/Danny GloverLonesome Dove
Hawaii Five-0Cop ShowHunter
The GladesPolice ProceduralHomicide: Life on the Street
The HillsAmerican SeriesHogan's Heroes
HellcatsDramedyHouse
Highway To HeavenCreator/NBCThe Hogan Family

alternative title(s): Hill Street Blues
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